12/10/12 OT

Janus Words (Auto-Antonyms)


The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were originally coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. For instance cleave "separate" is from Old English clēofan, while cleave "adhere" is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently. This is related to false friends, but false friends do not necessarily contradict.

Other contronyms result from polysemy, where a single word acquires different, and ultimately opposite, senses. For instance quite, which meant "clear" or "free" in Middle English, can mean "slightly" (quite nice) or "completely" (quite beautiful). Other examples include sanction — "permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows) — "leave quickly" or "fixed"; fast — "moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Many English examples result from nouns being verbed into distinct senses "add <noun> to" and "remove <noun> from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone (or pit).

Some contronyms result from differences in national varieties of English. For example, to table a bill means "to put it up for debate" in British English, while it means "to remove it from debate" in American English.

Often, one sense is more obscure or archaic, increasing the danger of misinterpretation when it does occur; for instance, the King James Bible often uses "let" in the sense of "forbid", a meaning which is now obsolete, except in the legal phrase "without let or hindrance" and in tennis, squash and table tennis.

An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral as "awful, pompous, and artificial", meaning in modern English "awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed."

Auto-antonyms also exist in other languages. For example, in Latin sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous", French hôte may mean either "host" or "guest"; the same is true for the Italian cognate ospite (both deriving from the Latin hospes). Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence). Italian ciao, Greek γειά, Swahili verb 'kutoa', meaning both "to remove" and "to add", and Hawaiian aloha, meaning both “hello” and “goodbye”

Sometimes an apparent opposition of senses comes from presuming the point of view of a different language. Latin altus can be translated "high" or "deep" in English, but in Latin had the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension". The difference in English between "high" and "deep" is determined by the speaker's awareness of their relationship to some perceived norm. A mountain is "high" because it is well above sea level, and the ocean is "deep" because it plunges well below it. Both, however, were altus in Latin. This concept is superficially similar to a few examples in Italian, such as snow, which is described as being "high", [alta], rather than "deep", but this is because it is considered to be heaped above the reference level of the ground, rather than a throwback to Latin. The adjective "profondo" is used instead to describe the idea of depth below a given reference level, so the sea is "profondo", along with the vast majority of examples in which "deep" would be used in English. In Italian, "alto mare" means not "deep sea" but "high sea", with the same meaning as English of "open water beyond territorial limits". The tide, {marea], also follows the same pattern as English, being either "high" or "low", depending on whether it is above or below the mean. However, Italian, French and Spanish all use their own equivalents of "high" to describe cooking pots, frying pans and saucepans which in English would be called "deep". In English, "tall", as a synonym of "high", would only be used to describe a pot when its height is considerably greater than its diameter, and drinking glasses with such proportions are also referred to as "tall" rather than "deep".

In addition various neologisms or other such words contain simultaneous opposing meanings when in the same context rather than alternate meanings depending on context, such as coopetition.


  • "Apparent" can mean "obvious" or "seeming, but in fact not".
  • "Back" can mean "regressive" as in "to go back in time", or it can mean "progressive" as in "to push back a deadline".
  • "To cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split".
  • "Fast" can mean "moving quickly" as in "running fast," or it can mean "not moving" as in "stuck fast."
  • "To overlook" can mean "to inspect" or "to fail to notice".
  • "Oversight" (uncountable) means "supervision", "an oversight" (countable) means "not noticing something".
  • "Off" can mean "deactivated" as in "to turn off", or it can mean "activated" as in "the alarm went off".
  • "Refrain" means both non-action and the repetition of an action, e.g. in musical notation.
  • "To sanction" means "to permit", and also "to punish".
  • "Shelled" can mean "having a shell" or "has had the shell removed" (as in shelling).
  • "To skin" means "to cover with skin" (as in to skin a drum) as well as "to strip or peel off" (as in to skin an animal).
  • "To stint" means "to stop", but the noun "stint" refers to the interval of work between stops.
  • "Strike", in baseball terms, can mean "to hit the ball" or "to miss the ball".
  • "To weather" can mean "to endure" (as in a storm) or "to erode" (as in a rock).
  • "Weedy" can mean "overgrown" ("The garden is weedy") or stunted ("The boy looks weedy").
  • "To dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (dust a cake with powered sugar).
  • "Yield" can mean "to produce" (as in a chemical equation) or "to concede" (as in driving).
  • "Resign" can mean "give up or quit" or "continue".
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